Magnets closures are weak, leaving solar panels at risk of damage
Slower than direct charging from grid-based power, of course
Not ideal for use in areas bereft of long periods of sunshine
If you're the type of person who goes outside on a regular basis, you probably notice that there's a distinct lack of outlets out there, which makes charging up your iPhone a bit difficult. That's why we like like the concept of solar energy charging our electronics -- no outlet needed! We'd recently covered the SolarPod Buddy, a cute solar-charged power bank aimed at charging smartphones and tablets. However, we found out that there's a newer, updated version of that solar charger, known as the Helios Smart.
On the Surface
The Helios Smart boasts a nice tri-fold, fold-out design, with over 70% more solar panel coverage than the SolarPod Buddy had, meaning that it soaks up that much more sun. The outside of the case is a resilient pleather material that feels like it could take a fair amount of bumping and jostling around in the bottom of a bag. We think that the overall look feels very professional, if you're into that sort of thing.
From a design standpoint, we do have a bit of a criticism. The magnets that hold the solar panel flaps closed aren't particularly strong, and we're a bit wary that if it is in a bag with keys or cables, there's a chance that the flaps could come open and become either crumpled, or the panels themselves could be scratched. That being said, we offer two fairly simple solutions: the first would be to store the unit in a pocket of a bag or purse where it won't be likely to have enough room to open, or, barring that, wrap a rubber band around it to keep it closed. We have no fear that the outside of the unit can't take a beating, so you only need to worry about protecting the solar panels inside.
What's on the Inside
Potentially the most thoughtful inclusion were two different ampage outputs. The 1A output port is designed to charge smartphones and wearable tech, like headphones, fitness trackers, and smartwatches. Some power banks don't recognize wearables, due to their low power draw, but the Helios was designed with this in mind, and the 1A output port is the perfect option to charge them.
The port is also the perfect option to charge smartphones, as the slower charge provides less wear and tear to the battery. This means that you'll protect the life of your phone battery while still getting the power you need on the go. Using the 1A port, the Helios charged a Nokia Lumia 822 to full a whopping four times from critically low before the Helios itself needed a recharge.
That being said, we've all got bigger portables. That's why the Helios also features a 2.1A output port, which is designed for charging larger smartphones, phablets, and tablets. We found this the perfect option for charging a dead iPad and our beefier Bluetooth speakers pretty quickly. This is especially nice, because we enjoy taking our Bluetooth speakers on the go with us to picnics, parks, and outdoor gatherings, and now our music can last just as long as our party does.
Going the Distance
So what's the charge times like? In optimal conditions, which are high UV days with plenty of bright, cloudless skies when the sun is high, it took just a bit under an hour and a half for us to charge the Helios Smart enough for it, in turn, to charge a smartphone from completely dead to completely full. If you're going to be outside for a significant amount of time on a sunny day, traveling in a car for long distances, or are lucky enough to have a windowsill that gets plenty of sun, it'll take you about five hours to get enough energy to charge your phone three full times with a bit left over, or charge a dead tablet to full and provide a partial charge on a dead smartphone. It's not instant, or as fast as a wall plug or car charger, but that's not bad for free energy.
Of course, there are days when you don't have optimal sunshine, and nights when sunshine isn't even remotely an option. That's why there's an "in" port, which allows you to charge Helios Smart's internal battery from "grid" power. All that you need is a microUSB cable and a computer, or an outlet-to-USB converter, and we're willing to bet that you've got both on hand.
If you're just charging the Helios, it takes a couple of hours to charge its battery from dead to full. You can even plug in two other devices at the same time and charge all three at once without having to route it through the battery. Solpro calls this their "pass through" charge, and they also state how it's much gentler on the batteries of our beloved technology, seeing as the energy is filtered through to our devices at the right ampage.
What We Thought
So what's the final verdict? We like the Solpro Helios Smart even more than the Solarpod Buddy, which we still have a soft spot for. The Helios Smart is attractive, simple to use, lightweight, and surprisingly efficient. We think that those who spend a lot of time outdoors, as well as those who are looking for greener alternatives, are sure to find this little gem quite impressive. The Helios Smart retails for about $120 directly from Solpro.
Who should snag the Solpro Helios Smart: You're an outdoorsy type who still likes to keep their tech on hand. Maybe you're like us, and you use your smartphone and tablet as your primary cameras on nature outings, or you're worried about your fitness tracker not having enough juice to power you through the day.
Who may not need to pick up the Solpro Helios Smart: If you find that you're primarily nocturnal, or you simply don't spend an hour and a half in the sunlight regularly, there's probably not a reason to grab this little charger.